Prehistoric Brits made the world’s earliest skull-cups

By Ed Yong | February 16, 2011 4:49 pm

Here are some we made earlier...

“The skull of Wynric Lance, failed claimant to the throne of Eirea, does not make as good a wine goblet as Lord Shryke had imagined, the despot revealed Monday. “This damn thing is practically impossible to drink out of,” said Shryke at a banquet celebrating the defeat of the Army Of Light… Shryke concluded that while he might end up drinking from Lance’s skull “occasionally, for show,” he plans to retain his set of brass flutes for everyday use.” – The Onion

Stock fantasy villains might like to drink from the skulls of their enemies, but the practice has its roots in historical reality. For thousands of years, humans have turned each others’ skulls into containers and drinking cups. Now, Silvia Bello from London’s Natural History Museum has found the oldest skull-cups ever recorded in a cave in Somerset, England.

Gough’s Cave is found in the Cheddar Gorge near Bristol. It’s a treasure trove of human remains, including Cheddar Man, the country’s oldest complete human skeleton. He lived around 9,000 years ago, but the cave’s oldest human fragments date back even further.

These include three skull-cups that Bello recovered in excellent condition. Two belonged to adults and one to a 3-year-old child. All of them were made by the Magdelanian culture, a group of prehistoric people who lived in Western Europe. No one knows how they used the grisly cups, but it’s clear that they manufactured them with great control. They all bear a large series of dents and cut-marks that were precisely inflicted.

Here’s a step-by-step guide to making your own skull goblet, based on what these ancient Britons would have done.

  1. First, “clean” your future cup by removing the scalp and all underlying flesh with firm strokes of a flint tool. The next steps are delicate, so you don’t want any skin obscuring your view.
  2. Next, remove the bones of the face and the lower half of the skull to leave only the dome-shaped vault. Strike your tools in a rough horizontal line from the nose and cheekbones to the inion (the projecting bump at the back of the skull). Strike the bones in small clusters to avoid breaking the vault – you don’t want a leaky cup, after all.
  3. Finally, now that you have your vault, shape it into the desired shape using a hammerstone and anvil, taking care to smooth the broken edges. And voila, a new cranial goblet, ready for use.

These steps produce a pattern of scars that are common to the three Gough’s Cave skullcups, as well as those from other caves in France, Spain and Germany. Most of these date back to the a few thousand years ago. Until now, the earliest possible specimens came from Le Placard Cave in western France, and while they could be anywhere from 12,000 to 15,000 years old, they have never been accurately dated. At a firm 14,700 years of age, Bello’s British skulls are the current record-breakers.

The vaults may have become cups, but only after the rest of their former owners were eaten. These people were among the first to recolonise Britain after the last ice age and last year, Bello suggested that they may have cannibalised each other.

The human remains in the cave greatly outnumber those of other species, and they bear cut marks that reflect the same butchering techniques used on animals. Bello’s team also found jaw bones of both humans and animals that were broken in the same way, probably to get at the marrow within. Once the flesh was finished, the skulls were turned into more practical objects.

These early skull-cups were the forerunners of a long tradition of cranial crockery that continues to this day. The archaeological evidence is scant, but historical texts are more revealing. Writing in the 5th century BC, the Greek historian Herodotus claimed that the Scythians drank from the skulls of their enemies, and other historians noted similar traditions among the Chinese and the Vikings. Various conquered celebrities, from Byzantine emperors, to Russian princes to Japanese lords, had their skulls turned into cups, often with a coating of gold and jewels. And in India and Tibet, the oval uppermost part of the skull is known as a kapala, a vessel that’s used for libations in tantric rituals.

In recent centuries, the practice has been observed among Australian aborigines and Pacific Islanders. In India, the Aghori sect still does it, some on a daily basis. Even Lord Byron drank from a skull that his gardener found (he had it mounted and polished with a fetching tortoiseshell finish first). Ever the poet, Byron even immortalised the unusual vessel in verse:

Start not -nor deem my spirit fled:
In me behold the only skull
From which, unlike a living head,
Whatever flows is never dull.

I lived, I loved, I quaffed like thee;
I died: let earth my bones resign:
Fill up -thou canst not injure me;
The worm hath fouler lips than thine.

Better to hold the sparkling grape
Than nurse the earthworm’s slimy brood,
And circle in the goblet’s shape
The drink of gods than reptile’s food.

Where once my wit, perchance, hath shone,
In aid of others’ let me shine;
And when, alas! our brains are gone,
What nobler substitute than wine?

Quaff while thou canst; another race,
When thou and thine like me are sped,
May rescue thee from earth’s embrace,
And rhyme and revel with the dead.

Why not -since through life’s little day
Our heads such sad effects produce?
Redeemed from worms and wasting clay,
This chance is theirs to be of use.

Reference: Bello, S., Parfitt, S., & Stringer, C. (2011). Earliest Directly-Dated Human Skull-Cups PLoS ONE, 6 (2) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0017026

If you want to see the skull-cups, one of them – or at least, a cast of it – will go on display for three months in London’s Natural History Museum, as of 1st of March, 2011.


Comments (15)

  1. How very practical. Whatever its culture and context, I imagine the practice would generally have had strong symbolic meaning.

    Reading Byron on a science blog is a rare treat; along the same lines there’s the more modern lyric from Tom Waits’ Black Rider: “Well I think I’ll have the veal / A lovely meal / That’s how I feel / Oh may I use your skull for a bowl?”

  2. And American soldiers did the same to Japanese KIAs in WWII. Cups, ashtrays, etc. As usual, Wikipedia has the details.

  3. Small typo. Herodotus lived and wrote in the 5th century BC, not 5 BC.

    [Fixed! – Ed]

  4. Richard9

    The onion is the source for the top part? Perhaps a quick perusal of the site should have been done prior to using them as a source for this story. It’s a joke site with made up “news”. just look at the top story today :

    “Anthropologists Trace Human Origins Back To One Large Goat
    ‘Wait, That Can’t Be Right,’ Scientists Say”

  5. Hilarious lead-in with the Onion quote, Ed! Cool story.

    Michael, that is horrifying, but thank you for sharing.

  6. Ed Yong

    @Richard9 – Yeeees, I know what the Onion is. What is more baffling is that that you read the quoted paragraph and deemed it to be a news source for this story as opposed to a comic counterpoint. “Throne of Eirea”? “Lord Shryke”?? Really?

  7. E

    Nice job Michael point out one side of a story but fail to bring to light any other portion. The Japanese did the same thing and on a more widespread basis. Only, and get this, the Japanese would systematically “choose” POWs to devour. Since we are using Wikipedia as the source, here ya go.

    Enjoy reading, “the rest of the story.”

  8. To the people on Fark who made the “no-brainer” and “A last pour Yorick” jokes, you are my heroes and I salute you.

  9. JMW

    Drinking too much wine from such a cup would leave one a numbskull.

  10. This makes the Celts and Scythians look less aberrant. Apparently cutting folks heads off and using their skulls as cups was a normal thing for 9,000 years. We are a very violent species.

  11. AIC

    Great job Michael … really like the post

    [Thanks! Er, who’s Michael? – Ed]

  12. BarryShitakeiPeas

    OK, so you had the choice of two puns:

    “it’s not exactly rocket science”


    “it’s not exactly brain surgery”

    you chose the one that has nothing to do with opening peoples heads. when is the next time that pun will ever fit into a news story this well!

    And you call yourself a journalist….for shame!

    [Er, that’s the name of the blog? – Ed]

  13. “This makes the Celts and Scythians look less aberrant. Apparently cutting folks heads off and using their skulls as cups was a normal thing for 9,000 years. We are a very violent species.”

    To be fair, they might have made the cups from their own people, not enemies they’d killed.

    Sounds weird but in some cultures eating your relatives has been considered a sign of respect.

  14. Nathan Myers

    … and still is. Obligatorily, and with great reluctance. (“What do you think I am, some kind of savage?”)

  15. Daniel J. Andrews

    lol! Sounds like a few commenters have been guilty of quaffing (not from a skull, I presume) a bit too much before reading.


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